5 Traits You Need to be a Great Writer
I always wondered who came up with the phrase “there’s more than one way to skin a cat.” Like, actually, what the hell?
But, when it comes to writing, there’s definitely more than one way to skin a cat. I’ve seen writers succeed in every niche, genre, style, voice, and tone you could possibly imagine, but they all share common traits.
In fact, if you don’t have or cultivate these traits, you’ll never reach your potential as a writer.
You’ll keep wondering why you never really get any better.
You’ll never grow your fan base the way you want to, and you’ll be scratching your head and spinning your wheels the entire time.
Then, you’ll probably just quit. Like most writers do. A bunch of shadow artists dying with all that potential left in them. So sad.
Don’t let this be you.
I know how bad you want to pull this writing thing off. I know it seems distant. But it can happen. In fact, it probably will happen if you adopt the following traits I’m going to share.
Are you ready to begin the path to writing mastery? Ok cool, here goes.
The Ability to Practice (the Right Way)
“The differences between expert performers and normal adults are not immutable, that is, due to genetically prescribed talent. Instead, these differences reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance.” – Anders Ericsson
How do you practice writing? You just write, right?
Yes and no.
I’ve seen writers who write a lot, but they never actually get better. How does this happen? First, writers who don’t know how to properly practice are self-indulgent and narcissistic. Harsh terms, but there’s no other way to describe it.
I talk about this type of writer in almost every post I write. This is the person who thinks they are going to build a writing career by using their blog as a personal journal to vomit out their random thoughts. This is not practicing.
I see people post these articles online all the time — cryptic and weird headlines, meandering thoughts, and no real attention paid to the reader on the other side of the screen.
When you truly practice, you’ll, you know, change your strategy if what you’re doing doesn’t seem to be working. You won’t just keep plowing ahead with these word-vomiting sessions.
When you practice, you’ll learn to refine your skills by first improving awkwardly until the process becomes smoother.
I remember the first time I read an article about using active voice. I jammed it in as much as possible thinking I always had to use it, e.g., I distinctly remember one article where I wrote: “Your bank account isn’t going to fill itself with money.”
Now, I know the active voice is important, but I don’t have to use it 100 percent of the time. I picked up a ton of little tricks like this — contracting words, omitting needless words, using the word “you” more often, writing interesting subheadings.
I focused on building a bag of tricks over time instead of “just writing.”
A Level of Patience Most Writers Simply Won’t Reach
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.” – Ira Glass
Patience is a skill you can learn and cultivate over time. Most aspiring writers are impatient and even downright neurotic.
I silently check in with Facebook Groups for writers all the time — the entitlement is palpable. These “writers” seem to be doing damn near everything except for actually writing. They complain about their stats, lack of progress, lack of love and adoration.
I always tell aspiring writers to just write more. It’s super simple and cliche, but it’s really the crux of it all.
That’s why I always tell aspiring writers — don’t try to become a writer if, deep down, you really don’t like to write that much. You will get a super low ROI on your time, for a long time, before you achieve any sort of success.
If you want to be a writer, your timeline for mastery should be your entire life, shouldn’t it?
That’s my timeline.
I’m naturally impatient, too, but I use that impatience to work, not to complain. I’m hasty about getting the words on the page every single day, but I know I have no choice but to just wait for the long term results to come.
Waiting annoys me, too, but I still get to work while I’m annoyed. Then, one day, I look up and see the results have jumped again. I do this process over and over again, surprising myself with each new level I reach.
The same will happen for you, too. Block out years to make this work. Go check your favorite writer’s archives. It’s always years, decades, sweat equity, relentless work.
This is the only way.
A Third Eye to View the World With
“Nothing bad can happen to a writer. Everything is material.” – Phillip Roth
One day, I was sitting in the parking lot and I saw a nice, like nice nice, BMW parked next to me. For some reason, I pictured the owner of the vehicle in my mind — late 50’s executive, six-figure salary, lowkey hates his life, but at least he has the shiny toy. This moment in my life was the seed for an article I wrote about people who sacrifice meaning for objects.
I take little random moments of my life and turn them into art all the time.
My 3-year-old daughter provides me so many moments that show me what true happiness, joy, and fun looks like. I’ve even turned the worst moment of my life into art. Sometimes that’s the best stuff, actually.
Conversations with friends and family have turned into articles. Sitting in the coffee shops I write in provides fodder — observing faces and eavesdropping on conversations.
The more you write and observe, the easier it is to come up with ideas. If you suffer from writer’s block, you’re just not paying enough attention to life. The fact that we are even here, sentient, and conscious, is utterly ridiculous. Thinking about that alone provides enough material for infinite blog posts.
Life can be mundane and routine at times, but there’s even a story in that. It doesn’t matter what genre you write in. Being more present, awake, and aware in your actual life makes you a better writer. Living a more interesting life makes you a better writer. Don’t just sit at home and write all day every day — explore, travel, have conversations with random strangers, live. Then write about it.
A Crystal Clear Lens When it Comes to People
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.” William Shakespeare
I’d rather have most aspiring writers read direct response copywriting books than go to school to get an MFA.
I stand on this — copywriters, marketers, sales and persuasion experts, etc are the smartest people in the world. On top of that, read novelists who focus deeply on the theme of human nature — Bukowski is my favorite. Knowledge about the nature of people trumps academic knowledge.
You’ll become an excellent writer in any genre when you understand this:
Human nature doesn’t change.
People, you, have buttons, levers, and puppet strings that can be pushed and pulled at will, without your permission. The way human beings work has been explained to the point of redundancy. It’s an open secret.
Understand how people work and how to persuade them. Understanding what really goes on in people’s heads matter more than the words themselves.
Why do you think books with shitty prose can still sell well? They aim right at the lizard brain and tickle it.
The most popular books on Amazon are romance novels — books that aim at prime animalistic instincts, deep-seated fantasies, the true nature people don’t show in public but curl up at night and get lost in.
Great memoirs tell stories people have lived out or wish they lived out. Great self-help plays on people’s aspirations. It’s all about reflecting the nature of your reader right back at them. That’s it.
If I owe my own success to anything, it’s the ability to articulate what people are thinking, but can’t articulate themselves.
If you can create that feeling of “I’ve always felt this, but I didn’t quite know how to say it,” readers will love you.
Stop thinking about yourself. Start thinking about your readers. Don’t think about their pre-frontal cortex. Think about their caveperson’s brain.
The Ability to Stay Focused and Refine ONE Theme
“Writing is the art of repeating oneself without anyone noticing.” – Nassim Taleb
Every post I write about writing is the same blog post.
Every self-improvement post I write is the same blog post.
The writing posts boil down to — write more, iterate, observe, improve.
The self-improvement posts boil down to – take full responsibility for yourself, understand no one can force you to do anything, put your life into the proper perspective.
Ryan Holiday once said something along the lines of “every great book should be derived from one central axiom.” I say that every great career should be derived from a central axiom.
You keep trying to say the same thing, except you try to say it a little bit better.
I remember a fellow writer once saying he was worried about repeating himself and his writing getting stale. I told him that his writing would never get stale, even if he kept talking about the same thing. Why?
Each time you’re trying to get at that central axiom when you sit down to write, your life is a little bit different each time. Maybe you’re a little wiser, or dumber. The experiences you have between each session color your life in subtle ways that bleed into the prose.
Your writing catalog is the combination of little timestamps in your philosophy — solidified pieces of thought.
And you’re never quite sure you have it exactly right. So you keep trying to get it right. It gets closer, but it’s never quite there. You keep doing it until you’re dead.
That’s a writing career.